November Songs

Musically, a little less consistency might be a plus. Memorable songs-as-songs are few. You put Patti and Lou side by side and it adds up to what a composer he is; you put her 14-minute title cut next to his 18-minute climax credo and you know what long is. But Patti works a different beat. Both space cadet and regular Joe, she was always a little maternal and more than a little populist. The shaman she becomes is hokey but real—some backwater guy with rituals involving a Fanta bottle full of tap water, only somehow the spell works. The associations she comes up with are unexpected, like that rambling, guttural "New Party" ranter who gives a whiff of a Thunderbird drunk on a Washington Square bench mixing up every religion and liberation philosophy. Patti's musical conception is designed to invoke an era when rock heroism made sense; often it's arena-rock as folk-rock, almost, with the occasional metal fill hauled out like a dinosaur thawed from a cave. In formal territory where the hero is a more plausible convention than in fiction, Patti understands, respects, and delivers that convention. She believes it is her obligation to improve life on earth. But at the same time, her vision of where the heroic might lie, even in herself, includes some locations less dignified than the low life in Lou's neighborhood.

It's always been hard to quite locate Patti's subjects—her spoken words can be easier to follow because their shape is unconstrained by necessities of beat. Where Reed's songs are relatively coherent comments on complicated arrangements, Smith's are elusive donations, designed to work more as encounter than as commentary. She has a taste for unlikely discovered language, whether antiquely ritualistic ("drum, drum, beat on a drum") or out of Catholic abstractions that have almost lost their meanings, like the ones that slosh around over "One Voice" 's sea-rocked, Who-ish setting.

One of the most recognizable compositions is in Appalachian mode, and it is an odd little feat. "Libby's Song" is like an optical illusion that seems to mean itself and its opposite. Or it's like one of those trick zipperless change purses, where when you squeeze them they change shape and you can get the money out. "If it wasn't for your golden hair," she sings and seems to say, "wouldn't I be lonely?" But it's really "I would not be belonely." It sounds like gratitude for a tide-me-over affair, but it's another mourning song. It's about what you do when you have a hole in your heart the size of someone you married for life but death did you part.

When we were very young: Patti and Lou With John Cale at the Bottom Line, December 1975
photo: Chuck Pulin/Starfile
When we were very young: Patti and Lou With John Cale at the Bottom Line, December 1975


Lou Reed
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Patti Smith
Gung Ho
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Where Lou is a fanatic about vocal control, Patti just uses her voice to deliver. Embarrassed, I liked this album right off, even though I could tell how hokey it was, but the more I listened, the more it gave. Even "Gung Ho" with all its "isms" proved far more complex than any piece of political songwriting Lou has ever done (he doesn't like Farrakhan, give me a break). Touched up with the strangely soothing, even nostalgic sound of distant helicopters, the soundtrack to many years of news broadcasts, it starts simply adulatory, introduces doubts, and concludes with a dramatization of the wheel-turning she uses as a metaphor for revolution; she groans.

Listening to Reed's "Like a Possum," I found myself thinking of classic performances by a genuinely old artist, Pablo Casals playing Bach cello suites, and groaning. The cello must have been the association. But I couldn't help thinking about endeavors where age is an advantage. Casals plays with a passion age has a gift for, like he's practicing a few dry runs at getting the spirit out of the body. I mean, Lou's not that old. But whatever that particular quality requires, Patti's closer to it already. Getting the spirit out of her body isn't exactly routine for her. But she's practiced.

In the speaking-of-embarrassing "Turning Time Around," Lou hazards, "I'd call love time," then adds, "Time is what you never have enough of." I don't get any of that from Patti. She goes through life like someone who thinks she does have enough. Choice doesn't seem to mean that much to her—she's done what she's done. Lou has examined choice, and the absence of choice, and examination, but he's only written about death. Patti has examined death.

And perhaps that's why I find, to my surprise, I'm more drawn to her this time around. I do think about death. Choice doesn't mean that much to me these days, and not because I got everything I wanted, believe me. I've noticed that the times I've lost hope, I've lost my interest in rock and roll. I have enough invested in caring about it that this is an incentive to try reviving myself. So I suppose it's still possible to say somebody's life can be saved by rock and roll.

The punk years were the most fun I ever had, musically, and for audiences I still prefer the kind with a lot of girls in crewcuts and industrial jumpsuits. But for sound what I crave these days is nothing like that at all. It's usually anything with clave. I want that combo of angularity, piano percussion (especially by one very old Cuban), and those hooky trick holes in the rhythm that jerk you like whiplash. Most of the music I like best these days I don't even understand the language, literally.

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